SAN SEBASTIAN, Sept 12 (Reuters) - After revamping their stadium by cutting out a much-maligned running track and elevating its capacity to 40,000, Real Sociedad finally have a home to be proud of and they believe it can help their bid to return to being one of Spain's top clubs.
The Basque side have been forced to play away in their first three matches of the season while the finishing touches were applied to their ground but on Saturday they will finally be back on home turf when they face early La Liga leaders Atletico Madrid.
"It's difficult to grow as a club and compete in Europe when you have a running track and fans are 42 metres away from the action, it's very difficult for them to express their passion", president Jokin Aperribay told reporters on Thursday.
"We train our players from the youth academy that they must deserve to win and I think this stadium will help us reinforce that message."
The new-look stadium will be known as the Reale Arena after the club secured a six-year, 10 million-euro ($11 million) deal with insurance company Reale Seguros.
While actual rebuild costs were not disclosed, local media reported that the club had pledged 33 million euros to the project, with the local government and city hall contributing a further 14 million.
Sociedad, from the picturesque northern coastal city of San Sebastian, were once among Spain's elite clubs, winning back-to-back La Liga titles in the early 1980s at their compact former home Atotxa, which housed 27,000 spectators.
The club moved into the roomier Anoeta in 1993 but the gain in capacity to 32,000 came at a cost, as the running track that hugged the pitch deprived fans of the intimacy their previous home was renowned for.
"I played at Anoeta with Osasuna and Malaga and as an opponent I did not feel the same pressure as at other stadiums," defender Nacho Monreal, who recently joined Sociedad from Arsenal, told local newspaper Diario Vasco.
"Fans have to be close to the players so they can feel close to the match, because football is all about passion. As a player, you can really feel that."
Despite a considerable fan base and exciting sides which came within touching distance of winning La Liga in 2003 and secured Champions League football in 2013, the team rarely managed to fill their unpopular ground.
But with a refurbished stadium plus a squad containing exciting young players such as Sweden forward Alexander Isak and Norway's Martin Odegaard, there is a new-found enthusiasm about the club. Over 32,000 season tickets have been sold for this campaign, while a sellout crowd is expected against Atletico which would see the club smash its previous attendance record.
"It's a stunning stadium, it's nothing like the old one, it's wonderful. There's no excuses now, we have all the ingredients for fans to come to the game on Saturday," said Monreal.
President Aperribay added: "It's a beautiful stadium and the best thing about it is the history which we are going to write in it."
($1 = 0.9038 euros) (Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)